Xbox One and ‘Titanfall’ a Killer Combo

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

It was Valentine’s Day, and I was afraid someone was watching me die.

On a night when most are finding ways to celebrate (or curse) romance, I had opted to spend the evening curled up on the couch with a game, a first-person shooter. At least I wasn’t alone.

I was one of many worldwide who were playing “Titanfall,” a game in beta testing that Microsoft has declared the showcase title for its recently released home console, the Xbox One. Connecting to strangers via Microsoft’s servers, many of whom were engaged in midgame conversations, I was outgunned, anxious and nervous about letting down my new teammates. In eight minutes, I would be killed 11 times by people I will never speak to.

Once, a giant robot stepped on me. Moments later, a giant robot fired a rocket into my chest. Suddenly, I had a giant robot to control myself, only now I was surrounded by other giant robots. I was dead.

“Titanfall” is out Tuesday. If all goes to plan, millions of gamers this week will be destroying one another, and millions in cash will be generated for the title’s publisher, Electronic Arts, and the game’s exclusive partner, Microsoft.

But first, more people are going to have to buy an Xbox One, the next-generation game console that promises a more connected experience. There is, for instance, no ability to anonymously hide offline and fail alone in “Titanfall.”

The man responsible for all this carnage is Vince Zampella.

Zampella, in fact, is arguably the man responsible for a great deal of video game warfare over the last 15 years. At his last company, he spearheaded the first “Call of Duty” game in 2003.

“Titanfall” is the first game from his recently formed Respawn Entertainment. In a rarity for console games, you will always be connected, you will always be in a game arena with others and someone may well be laughing at you as you die.

“Just make sure you die in a good way,” Zampella says. “Die gloriously.”

Maybe I’m just selfish for wanting to die alone.

First-person shooters, a genre I largely avoided, have dominated the last decade and a half of video games. The multiplayer aspect of such games evoked the emotions that drove me to retreat, alone, to games in the first place.

A missed basket, a strikeout or a dropped pop fly are moments that resulted in morning spitballs lodged in my hair. In contrast, the “Monkey Islands” and “King’s Quests” of the world were safe places to explore.

Thus, the first time years ago I logged into a multiplayer shooter and a complete stranger celebrated my death, I was out. And yet, I want to know why “Titanfall” is so important to Microsoft that the company is bundling it with its system. The Xbox One may have sold well this past holiday season, but it lacks a game that truly shows off its potential. As Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi asked, “What is the title that is going to come and light up people’s imagination?”

Although I’ve been hoping a developer at Microsoft could wow me with something other than guns, perhaps it will be a first-person shooter. I tell Zampella that shooters make me insecure. He nods, laughs. “You’re not alone in that,” he assures me.

Zampella, 44, offered an early look at the game in his Van Nuys, Calif., offices a few weeks ago. With an excitable voice, the first impression he gives is one of friendliness, but friendliness in a tough-love, sort of football coach way.

Zampella knows for whom he’s making games. He doesn’t speak about grand narratives in his games as we tour his offices. “Anyone who plays first-person-shooters has a certain level of expectations,” Zampella says. “You don’t want to break the mold too hard. You just want to crack it a little and make some extensions. It’s about familiarity.”

If “Call of Duty” has historically featured ripped-from-the-headlines plots, “Titanfall’s” militaristic campaigns owe more to “BattleTech” and “Halo,” as players can run in and out of fast-moving tank-like robots.

These robots are called titans, and at various points in the game a player can summon one and they will scoop you up.

More important to me, there is also a gun that will automatically lock on any targets in range, freeing me from relying on my inefficient aiming skills. Despite decades of gaming experience, I will never not hit the X button when I am told to hit the A button.

With “Titanfall,” I can finally make a kill, and it feels good, like getting your first base hit in Little League. As I’m thinking this, someone shot me in the back of the head.

But one of “Titanfall’s” key tweaks is that the balance of power can be shifted from seasoned pros — veteran players who can make newcomers feel like a landing pad for bullets — to anyone who’s willing to buy the game and spring for the $60 yearly membership fee for Xbox Live, which is required to take advantage of most of the Xbox One’s network features.

“The dynamics in a match can swing wildly, depending on how talented the person inside the titan is,” says Lewis Ward, a research analyst at IDC who tracks the game business.

That mix of army-like seriousness and zaniness permeates the Respawn headquarters. The double doors that lead to the fourth-floor office space lack any identifying signifiers, lending an air of secrecy that extends to everyone’s reluctance to discuss, say, a weapon that may or may not be in the game. Yet the office manager doesn’t have a desk or a chair, preferring instead to use large stuffed animals for support, and Mario Perez, in charge of “Titanfall’s” motion-capture, is also a budding M.C., Mr. E Assassin. His hip-hop initials are imprinted on a “Titanfall” weapon.

And then there’s the “Men of Respawn” calendar hanging throughout the offices. Mr. February is fully clothed but captured in a luxurious slanted pose while clutching a cuddly toy. Community manager Abbie Heppe is asked when the “Women of Respawn” calendar is coming. Probably never, she says, because she’s one of four female employees.

The staff of Respawn, which numbers about 90, shirks at the question of how “Titanfall” reinvigorates a tried-and-true point-and-shoot approach to gaming. “We didn’t want to stray too far from the wheelhouse,” Zampella says.

While I prefer giant robots over the real-life jingoistic settings of “Call of Duty,” building a better shooter feels more akin to engineering a more impressive NFL stadium than a pure artistic endeavor. Amenities may be more advanced, sightlines are enhanced — all integral to the overall experience — but the action on the field still adheres to a set of rules.

Or maybe I’m missing something?

Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor of digital culture and communication at the University of Waterloo and co-editor of the 2012 book “Guns, Grenades and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games.” He studies first-person shooters and loves them. “Part of the promise and part of the pitfall of the first-person shooter genre is because it is so established, you have a lot of people who like to play this particular type of game,” he says. “They know what to expect. They know what they like.”

That audience is large and hungry. The genre, according to industry trade group the Entertainment Software Assn., is the game industry’s second most popular, and a “Call of Duty” title has been the industry’s top seller in four of the last five years.

Released in November, Microsoft said the Xbox One sold more than 3 million units throughout the holiday season. Sony’s Play-Station 4 topped 4 million units sold. A successful first-person shooter, says analyst Ward, will appeal to the core gaming community. “In North America, (‘Titanfall’) can close the gap between the PS4 and Xbox One, if not reach parity,” Ward says. “Titanfall” will later be released for the Xbox 360 and PC.

That’s good news for Microsoft, because it’s aiming “Titanfall” and new Xbox One updates straight at the gunner community. Without the ability to play an offline, single-player campaign, Microsoft will not only sell Xbox Ones but also sell people into its Xbox Live ecosystem.

The idea is that it is in this connected space that a new generation of consoles will have its biggest effect. With the release of “Titanfall,” the Xbox One, like its counterpart the PS4, will be able to post game footage directly to Twitch, a video game streaming site that boasts more than 45 million unique users a month and has helped popularize games as a spectator sport.

Whether such social features can expand the gaming audience may not matter in the short term.

A “Call of Duty”-like success means eventually 25 million to 30 million copies of a game sold. It’s a number that Zampella says he “can live with” and one he can reach without worrying about appealing to some guy who doesn’t want to die in public.

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